What the Smart Watch of the Future Taught Me

Although I’m likely ahead of the curve, I’m a believer that wearable displays and smart wristwatches are poised to become mainstream sooner rather than later. More devices are gaining connectivity: 50 billion are expected by 2020, and they won’t all be smartphones, tablets or computers. Weeks ago, I put my money where my mouth is, bought a Sony Ericsson(s sne)(s eric) Live View wearable display, and found that it wasn’t ready to meet my needs. The watch-like device depends on a wireless connection from an Android smartphone to feed it information. In my use, I experienced frustrating connection drops several times an hour and faced endless tapping to scroll through information.
My experience with the MetaWatch, a prototype watch project backed by Fossil (s fosl), couldn’t be any more different. The reason is because the MetaWatch takes a different approach, which I’ve come to see is more effective. Instead of trying to cram extensive application functions into a small screen on the wrist, the MetaWatch offers useful information at a glance without the need for scrolling. MetaWatch isn’t trying to replicate or replace smartphone functions; it supplements them. And the connection is rock-solid and reconnects by itself.

Less Is More; Convenience Is a Feature

Bill Geiser, VP of Watch Technology, and David Rosales, manager of product development and engineering, both from Fossil, recently told me the watch is an exploration for the company. “Some may overlook the convenience, which to us is a feature. Think of Netflix (s nflx) and microwaves: each takes an existing concept and makes it easier to use, for example,” Geiser said.
A perfect example of that convenience is how I’ve used the MetaWatch to help me triage the near-constant flow of email coming to my phone. When a message arrives on my handset, the MetaWatch vibrates two times as an alert. That tells me some type of message is about to appear on my wrist. A few seconds later, the watch vibrates once and shows the sender’s name, subject line and a few words of the email. That’s all I get, but I’ve learned that’s all I need.
From that one glance of minimal information, I can tell if the mail is important enough to pull out my smartphone (cat videos can wait) and take action or if I can simply ignore the message until I have more time later in the day. It doesn’t sound like an earth-shattering change, but after two weeks with the MetaWatch, I find it an effective time-saver. The alternative is taking out the smartphone with every notification, unlocking the device and then scanning the email, which may not even warrant immediate action; a much more disruptive activity.
This same at-a-glance functionality works with incoming text messages, incoming phone calls and calendar event notifications. The watch face can also show local weather, and of course, the time and date, in addition to the number of unread emails, messages and missed phone calls. The current music track and artist can also be shown, although on the prototype, that function hasn’t worked for me.

MetaWatch Is a Platform, Not a Product

The “secret sauce” behind what the MetaWatch displays is actually an open-source solution, aptly named OpenWatch. I’m using the software on my Android handset, but it supports other platforms as well: BlackBerry (s rimm), Windows Mobile (s msft) and Java (s orcl) handsets, for example. The MetaWatch pairs quickly with the OpenWatch software using Bluetooth, and the wireless range itself is far better than what I experienced with the Sony Ericsson Live View. In contrast, I’ve worn the MetaWatch at least 80 feet from my handset and still received notifications. That’s likely due to both the software as well as the low-power Bluetooth solution used in the MetaWatch, which is a wireless chip from Texas Instruments (s txn).
As a reminder, this is a $200 prototype for developers and other watch manufacturers to leverage so don’t get hung up on size, form factor and other physical features. The device uses a 96 x 96 reflective display, has six function buttons, backlight capability, vibrating motor, leather strap, accelerometer and rechargeable battery. The beta software I’m using is specific to stress test the messaging, so it hits the battery harder than a production version would. I was told to expect a day per charge and I can easily see that. With final software, the watch should run for a full week.
Developers can instrument their applications to leverage the MetaWatch with very little code; since the device is essentially a remote display, applications simply need to provide output to the MetaWatch through the OpenWatch software. And that’s partially why Fossil is backing the project as a platform, instead of driving their own individual sales. “We think there are 1,000 killer apps for this,” Rosales said, and by licensing the effort, Fossil stands to gain back the last few years of effort and research dollars to pair a smart watch on the wrist to nearly every smartphone out there.
My conversation with Geiser and Rosales and the last few weeks of using a MetaWatch, have taught me that the MetaWatch team “gets it” when it comes to smart watches. There are many visions of what a smart watch ought to do, but the more functionality added, the more complex and disruptive the technology can be. Perhaps one day we’ll all be talking into our wrist for a phone call, but for the coming future, a display-at-a-glance device with a simple, intuitive interface is saving me much time.